His Leadership Was an Art: Celebrating Max De Pree, 1924–2017


The Fuller community mourns the loss of Max De Pree, longtime friend, board member, and faithful supporter of Fuller Seminary. He passed away Tuesday morning, August 8, at his home in Holland, Michigan, with his wife Esther and daughter Jody Vanderwel at his side.

Max De Pree joined Fuller’s Board of Trustees in 1964 and served Fuller in that capacity for 40 years, with six of those as chairman of the board, until his retirement in early 2005. “Max De Pree has been one of the greatest influences in the life and development of Fuller Seminary,” said Fuller President Mark Labberton. “Our story to this point in our first 70 years simply could not be told without him. It was his combination of character, leadership, and faith over 40 years that left such an imprint. Who he was and how he lived were of one piece, focused on Christ, offered for the sake of the church and the world. Max was such a gift!”

“Max brought presence, confidence, clarity, and prominence to the board—all balanced against his grace and humility,” said Samuel Reeves, fellow board member and founder of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership. “He was always a mentor and model for the entire Fuller family.”

Max’s remarkable character as a leader was shaped mainly during his career with Herman Miller, an office furniture company founded by his father. In the five decades he spent there, Max held a variety of positions in the company including chief executive officer from 1980 to 1987, finally retiring as chairman of the board in 1995. During his tenure at Herman Miller, Max earned much respect in the business world for the company and more specifically for his creative, people-centered leadership. Herman Miller became one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies and was listed as one of the magazine’s most admired, recognized for its excellence in management and innovation. Max was inducted into Fortune’s National Business Hall of Fame and in 1997 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business Enterprise Trust.


Max De Pree with fellow trustees Samuel Reeves (at left) and John Ortberg (center)

In his four popular leadership books—Leadership Is an Art, Leadership Jazz, Leading Without Power, and Called to Serve—Max, in a gentle storytelling style, shared his vast knowledge and wisdom about leadership and management, always emphasizing putting people first. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” he famously stated in Leadership Is an Art. “The second is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

“For many of us who work,” he wrote, “there exists an exasperating discontinuity between how we see ourselves as persons and how we see ourselves as workers. We need to eliminate that sense of discontinuity and to restore a sense of coherence in our lives.”

In 1996, Samuel Reeves, a good friend of Max’s as well as fellow board member, founded the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller, in recognition of the profound impact Max had on Reeves and countless others. The center serves as a bridge between the seminary and the marketplace and promotes the elements Max emphasized in his leadership model, especially the shaping of the leader’s character and a focus on relationships.

Says Mark Roberts, the center’s current executive director: "When I began at the De Pree Center, I had the privilege of meeting Max for the first time. I had learned so much from his books, but was finally able to have a face-to-face conversation with him. I was impressed with Max's wisdom, vision, and his openness to innovation in the center that bore his name. But what struck me most of all was how deeply personal he was, how humble, how interested in me. The man who put relationships at the core of leadership lived what he taught and wrote."


Speaking with Fuller students in his earlier days as a trustee

Springing from Max’s philosophy of leadership was the importance of the mentoring relationship. Walter C. Wright Jr., longtime mentee of Max and former executive director of the De Pree Center, commented, “The mentoring relationship—the investment of one’s self in the life and leadership of another—may be the essence of the legacy of Max De Pree.” Over the years, he formally mentored nearly two dozen individuals, and informally mentored countless others who worked with him and observed him. Merlin Call, another longtime member and former chair of Fuller’s board, says that Max mentored the entire board in their trusteeship. Among other things, “he taught us the importance of expressing thanks, and celebrating contributions and accomplishments.”

Max’s focus on relationships was also behind his deep devotion to his wife, Esther, their four children, and their numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After 70 years of marriage, Max said of their bond, “We’ve been a team all our lives. The key to my entire life has been Esther, this faithful partnership.” Reflecting just a few months ago on that in the light of their last days together, he shared, “Every night when we go to bed, we tell each other we love each other—because maybe we won’t say it in the morning. And we’re okay with that.”

Max De Pree’s daughter Jody Vanderwel has continued his legacy of leadership at Fuller Seminary, serving as a trustee since 2004. His family, his mentees, his books, and the Max De Pree Center for Leadership will secure the continuance of Max De Pree’s legacy of love and “artful” leadership.

See more from Max De Pree and explore other perspectives on work here.

Read Herman Miller's tribute and obituary for Max De Pree.

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